I tried so many new games this year I haven’t been able to come up with an accurate count—it’s well north of 50, between games I’ve received for review, games I tried at GenCon and/or PAX Unplugged, and games I tried with friends. There were over 700 new titles released at GenCon in August, and over 1000 new titles at SPIEL in Essen, Germany, in October, although I assume there is a lot of overlap between the two numbers. (At least, I hope there is.)
I’ve tried to limit this to games released in the U.S. between December 1 of 2016 and December 1 of this year, although official release dates can be hard to find and I’d rather err on the side of inclusivity. Great Western Trail was the best new game I tried this year, but was officially released in the U.S. in November of 2016. Raiders of the North Sea was reissued this year by Renegade Games, but the game itself was self-published in 2015. They’re both pretty great. I’ve also omitted reissues of classics (London, Torres, Downforce, and a childhood favorite of mine, Stop Thief) and sequels (like Pandemic Legacy: Season 2) so I can focus just on truly new titles.
A few honorable mentions: Seikatsu, Santorini, Sentient, Caverna: Cave vs. Cave, The Colonists, Hafid’s Grand Bazaar, Farlight, Century: Spice Road, Fox in the Forest.
Patchwork for four players? Bärenpark has a Tetris-like element to it, as players try to fill their 4×4 boards with zoo tiles that cover anywhere from one to eight spaces, but where they only get to select tiles when they cover up certain symbols on their boards. Each player wants to eventually add three more 4×4 tiles to their “bear park,” gaining bonuses for placing tiles of 5+ and for filling all open spaces on any 4×4 tile for a declining bonus that starts at 16 points. Very family-friendly with very few rules, although the game comes with a de facto expansion of achievement cards that give players points for reaching unique goals in the tiles they place.
9. Mole Rats in Space
Matt Leacock is best known for Pandemic, which has now become a brand of its own, with the best-selling Legacy series and additional offshoots to the base game, but his line of cooperative titles was missing a game at the lowest end for younger players. Voila: Mole Rats in Space, a coop game that will be very familiar to adults who’ve played Pandemic or Forbidden Desert, but that strips out a lot of the rules and adds a simple card-based movement system so that it’s fine for kids as young as six. Players are mole-rat astronauts—don’t ask, I don’t know—who have to get four items to the center of their spaceship while avoiding the snakes infesting the ship. The ship also has chutes that let you drop down a level—or shoot you out into space, so part of your goal is to move the snakes on to those spots on the board, like you’re curing a disease. It plays in 15-20 minutes and is a great way to bring younger kids to the game table.
8. La Flamme Rouge
“It’s La Flamme Rouge.”
“You mean the Tour de France?”
(Scottish accent) “Quiet, boy, ya wanna get sued?”
La Flamme Rouge pits two to four players against each other on a variable board that tries to simulate bike racing in teams, with each player controlling two tokens. You choose how much to move each of your bikes on a turn by playing a movement card from their respective decks, but after everyone’s moved, there’s a “slipstream” effect that moves bikes who were just a space behind further up toward the leader, so there’s a game theory element to choosing how to play your cards: If you race out to a big lead, you may inadvertently pull an opponent with you even though s/he played lower movement cards.
I guess this was the year of the board game umlaut. Days of Wonder games have a distinct look and feel to them—and come with great boxes for storing all the game parts—with Yamataï, from the designer of Five Tribes and Kingdomino, meeting those expectations. It also has a unique set of mechanics, where players place ships on routes between the board’s islands, but don’t actually claim or own those ships going forward, and can earn points by building on the islands based on what colors the adjacent ships are. The game also has a separate system to allow you to hire “specialists”—don’t call them ninjas, but really, they’re ninjas—for extra actions, abilities, or bonuses, which are essential for maxing out your score.
The quality of artwork in games has improved exponentially over the past two years, and Skyward is the best example of a 2017 game that hooked me first for its art and then kept me for its gameplay. Skyward is a card-drafting game where players try to “launch” buildings into their own airspace for points, paying building costs by discarding faction cards with the required symbols. On each turn, one player is the warden and draws four cards per player, then divides them into stacks, one per player, of any size s/he wants. The idea, of course, is to try to rig the stacks so that other players take certain ones and you, as the warden, still get the cards you wanted. The game moves quickly, playing in under a half-hour, and there are several cards in the deck that let a player sneak through a game-ending move without warning, keeping you on your toes once anyone gets close to the finish line.
5. Ex Libris
The goofy art put me off this set collection game at first, but it’s a great family-level game that incorporates card collection, hand management, and worker placement aspects without overloading the game with rules. There are six book types in the game, and each card may show two to four books, with two to four book type symbols at the top. You need to place cards in alphabetical order on your “shelves,” while trying to rack up more books in some categories and avoid Banned Books (although they only cost you one point each, a minor setback given where final scores are).
4. Wasteland Express Delivery Service
The most complex game on my top ten, and the best complex strategy game I played this year other than Great Western Trail, Wasteland Express Delivery Service puts players in a post-apocalyptic setting and asks them to earn money by delivering goods across the ravaged landscape, using the cash to pimp their rides. Eventually, you have to complete specific tasks that vary each game to win; the first player to finish three of these “priority” contracts is the winner. The box, which includes plastic inserts for easy setup and storage, is massive, with hundreds of cardboard and plastic tokens, but the game’s mechanics aren’t actually as complicated as the size of the rulebook implies.
Happy little trees! Photosynthesis manages to take a novel visual theme, with players planting and growing three sizes of cardboard trees, and integrating it completely into the game’s core mechanic—you gain light points when the sun, which rotates around the board, shines on your trees … as long as they’re not shaded by other trees already on the board. The bigger the tree, the longer the shadow it casts. You want to grow your trees from seed to the largest size and then harvest it for points, earning more points the closer the tree was to the middle of the board. Some trees you plant for points, but others you might plant to try to block other players from soaking up the sun.
2. Whistle Stop
I joked in my review of Whistle Stop that the world didn’t really need another train game, but you should probably make room on your shelves for this one anyway. Whistle Stop skims the best pieces from lots of different games in its niche without overloading the game with rules, so turns remain quick and there are many paths to victory points. Players move their trains across the board, east to west, adding hex tiles with tracks and stops as they go. Trains can pick up basic or luxury goods that can be exchanged in combinations for stock certificates in the various railroads, or taken all the way to the west end of the board for large point bonuses. Once a train reaches that western edge, however, it’s out of the game. The board is different every time, and even the game’s length can vary depending on players’ strategies, but it plays lighter than you’d expect from a game with all of these ideas.
Designed by two-time Spiel des Jahres winner Michael Kiesling, who won for Tikal and Torres (co-authored with Michael Kramer) and also produced the wonderful game Vikings, Azul was an instant hit for us and hugely popular at PAX Unplugged in November. It’s a gorgeous game with very high-quality components, with just a few simple rules that introduce a bit of game theory and some press-your-luck elements as well. Players try to fill out as much of their 5×5 mosaic boards as they can, but can’t repeat any of the five tile types more than once in any row or any column. You select all tiles of one color from any of the common spaces at the center of the table, or all of the tiles of one color from the center, and when you fill out a blank row on your board, you can transfer one to the 5×5 area and discard the rest. If you have to take tiles you can’t place, however, you lose points—potentially a lot—meaning that what you take now is also informed by what you might get stuck with later. I tried some fantastic games this year, and Azul is the best of the lot, the one that keeps returning to our table even as other titles come and go.
Keith Law is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com and an analyst on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight. You can read his baseball content at search.espn.go.com/keith-law and his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.